Election officials work to protect your vote from high tech threats

ByChuck Goudie and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Friday, October 28, 2016
Election officials work to protect voters from high tech threats
The possibility of vanishing votes has security researchers warning that as technology changes the potential for stuffing ballot boxes may also be going high tech.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- "Vote early and vote often" may no longer just be the punch line to an old Chicago election joke. The possibility of vanishing votes has security researchers warning that as technology changes the potential for stuffing ballot boxes may also be going high tech.

On Chicago's South Side is a sprawling secure warehouse where election officials are testing every single piece of Chicago's voting equipment to make sure it's working right.

"We know our reputation, we know what happened 50-60 years ago and we're going to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Jim Allen, Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

But as voting technology changes new threats emerge.

"You're always concerned that hackers could try to target any part of your system but you try to take enough steps to mitigate the risk," Allen said.

Chicago's answer to high-tech threats of hackers attempting to manipulate votes is actually a very old technology: paper.

Each of the city's electronic voting machines has a paper record so that voters can check their ballots before they're cast and so that there's a hard copy that can be examined in the case of a problem.

"You have to have a paper trail for these elections, I can't imagine going into an election without that security, that knowledge that there's a record there," said Allen.

"I think we need to focus on the risk of being hacked. With physical access a lot of these new machines are extremely vulnerable," said Ben Johnson, chief security strategist at Carbon Black.

Johnson and his company are looking into the vulnerabilities in voting systems. He said more needs to be done to test and make sure voting machines are reliable because even if a paper record is keeping count a claim of a hacked machine or tampering with electronic systems could cause a big loss of confidence on Election Day.

"The hacker, they do a little bit of work and they could cause a lot of damage even if the vote doesn't necessarily change," Johnson said.

"It doesn't necessarily have to be malfeasance, it can be malfunction," said Pamela Smith, president of nonprofit, non-partisan group Verified Voting

Verified voting is urging a nationwide paper hard copy backup recording every vote cast. Smith is concerned about some counties in northwest Indiana that don't have full paper backups and therefore can't confirm that votes wouldn't be changed or lost if the system went down.

"The key is, the software is probably working correct but if you have the paper you have a way to determine for sure if that's the case," Smith said.

"We're very confident in the integrity of our system here. When we look at 326 polling sites, 562 precincts and we had no aberrations over the last two years, that speaks for itself," said Patrick Gabrione , assistant director of the Lake County Indiana Board of Elections and Registration

Lake County's electronic voting machines do not have a full paper backup; instead, they only have a paper record of every fifth vote that's cast which could be compared to electronic records if there was some sign of a problem.

"As every voter votes, after the first five votes, it will start randomly pulling out one of those votes and put it on to the audit trail. We can pull the audit trail. That will tell us not how the individual voted but that a vote was cast," said Michelle Fajman, director of the Lake County Indiana Board of Elections and Registration.

"They are not perfect machines, there are vulnerabilities, they can be attacked in certain ways," said Christopher Carlis, information security researcher

Carlis said while criminals could physically target individual machines, because voting machines aren't connected to the internet a widespread hack would be extraordinarily difficult.

"The biggest risk that this talk of hacking an election or rigging an election is the fear that it creates, that an election can be rigged, it can discourage people from coming out and voting when everyone should really get out and vote. You have an opportunity to have your voice be heard so don't let the boogeyman of the hacker coming to hack your election dissuade you from getting out there and voting," Carlis said.

The hackers that targeted voter registration records in Illinois this summer were likely state sponsored identity thieves according to the FBI. Those voter roll systems are separate from voting machines.

Since many of those machines were bought after the 2000 election they will need to be upgraded soon.